Earlier this year, 17 Ayoreo Indians emerged from the dry scrub forests of western Paraguay to make their first contact with non-Indians. It seems astonishing that first contacts such as this are still taking place 500 years after Columbus, but there are actually more uncontacted peoples today than experts thought existed 35 years ago.
For centuries, the West has dismissed minority tribes as anachronisms destined to die out, or at least to become assimilated into 'modern' life. But slowly the balance is beginning to shift towards the indigenous people, as the value and importance of their cultures and the need to uphold their human rights are increasingly being recognised. The UN's Decade of Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004), for example, would have been inconceivable 30 years ago, when such peoples were marginalised everywhere.
It's true that a UN agency, the International Labour Organisation, passed a convention on indigenous peoples in 1957, but even the countries that signed up to it ignored what it said--particularly its most important article, which recognised that indigenous peoples owned their lands. In Australia, it was only in 1992 that the so-called Mabo case first established 'native title'. Future generations may find it shocking that for 200 years, Australian law supported the racist lie known as terra nullius, which stated that the land was 'of no-one' prior to British occupation. Bur, in a way, Australia was ahead of other wealthy countries.
Only in 1997, in the Delgamuukw case, did Canada finally recognise Indians' land-ownership rights; even though they had never signed a treaty, the judgement found, with stark though belated simplicity: "What aboriginal title confers is the right to the land itself." This was reinforced last year in South Africa, where the Richtersveld people secured a resounding victory when a court declared that land claims must be settled "according to indigenous law without importing English conceptions". In a nutshell, if a tribe thought the land belonged to them before colonists turned up and took over the country, then this fact must finally be recognised in the law imposed by the colonists.
The reason that treaties were signed in North America and New Zealand (the Waitangi Treaty of 1840, still in force), yet no equivalent agreements were drawn up in neighbouring Australia, was that Aboriginal society went unrecognised by Europeans. Peoples such as the Aboriginals, and for that matter the Ayoreo of Paraguay, had no writing, only rudimentary dwellings, and little that Europeans identified as material culture. This isn't surprising--they were mainly hunter-gatherers and such peoples travel extremely light, carrying most of their culture in their heads. Possessions are few and even political leadership is largely avoided. What is important is memory, skill and a refined application of reciprocity, probably the most powerful survival tool ever grasped by humankind. Hunter-gatherers know their land and its plants and animals with the deepest intimacy: they have to in order to survive. Although this seems obvious, the concept is now so alien to most Westerners that it's often ignored, denied, or ridiculed as mete romanticism.
The difference between small-scale tribes, often hunters, and larger groups was vital in determining whether the colonial powers signed agreements with them. And it remains important today. Since the late 1960s, the movement for indigenous peoples' rights, at least for the more organised groups, has been driven by the affected peoples themselves. In the USA, the American Indian Movement formulated a 'red power' forged by young urban Indians, many of whom had college educations and came from the larger tribes. A similar movement, but without the Black Power parallels, coalesced in Canada into the National Indian Brotherhood. At the same time, the Aboriginal Land Councils in Australia came together to argue their case to the nation and the courts. …